“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.”
– Harper Lee To Kill a Mockingbird
I found out the true definition of courage last weekend. With much excitement, I took a long journey to the U.S. Marine Corps Base at Quantico, Va., to see my cousin graduate from Officer Candidate School (OCS). I did not find this personification of courage in the slideshow of photos and presentation of information on what the candidates had been put through during their six weeks on base. Nor did I find it lying around the enormous base inhabited by hundreds of proud, brave members of the U.S Marine Corps.
No, I found out what real courage in the pre-dawn hours of family day on the tarmac of the Tuscaloosa Airport when I saw the size of the plane on which I was expected to travel across several states.
Don’t get me wrong, I have flown on small-ish planes before. During my days working at Florida State, I took a few 30-40 passenger jets to some NCAA events, which was harrowing enough (especially coming back from the College Cup in Texas with a plane so packed we had to take our second place trophy out of the box and put it in someone’s lap just to get it back to Tallahassee). And I knew when I signed up for this trip to Christopher’s graduation that we would be taking a small, private plane. Without realizing it, I suppose I was picturing a semi-luxurious lear jet in my head. The night before the trip, I asked my aunt how many seats were on the plane.
“Well, there’s two seats facing each other here, and then two here,” she said, indicating the four seats on the dinner table. Then she stopped talking.
“And the rest of the seats?” I asked with a panic. “Where are the rest of the seats?”
She calmly explained that there was only one other passenger seat, which also doubled as the toilet when you removed the seat cushion and drew a curtain across it. Other than that, it was just the pilot and co-pilot’s chairs in the cockpit, and that was it.
Generally, in between the take-off and the landing parts, I’m a good flier (flyer?). I love seeing the sculpture of the Earth from the skies, inhabited by thousands of ant-sized people going about their days thinking that the world is so big when from my view, it looks so small. But as soon as I saw this supposed plane we were to fly on, panic started to set in.
Worse, the young pilot of the plane decided to joke with my parents (who were dropping me off at the airport) when they asked how long he’d been flying.
“Let’s see…” he said, “I think it’s been about a year now.”
My stomach churned and did not settle even when he admitted his joke and said he’d actually been flying for more than a decade.
Aboard the plane, we taxied toward the runway while my aunt tried to keep me and my cousin’s girlfriend (who was also a little nervous) otherwise occupied with jokes on the back of her Laffy Taffy wrappers.
“How do you get the ‘water’ in the ‘watermelon’?”
“You plant it in the spring!”
(A light giggle, slight ease in tension)
“What did one casket say to the other?”
“That you coffin?”
(Terrified all over again)
The plane’s engine roared and we slipped into the morning sky over Tuscaloosa. As our gradual climb continued, I slowly started to release my death grip on the arm of my seat. But just I was almost back to a normal heart rate, there was a small explosion in the plane. The pilot jerked around in his seat as my pulse skyrocketed. What was that noise? Was there a hole in the plane? Did we have to turn around?
Panicking and frantically looking around the plane for signs of damage, it took us a moment to notice the cloud of salt rising next to my aunt’s seat. It was only then that we realized her sealed back of pretzels had popped under the pressure in the plane. Nervous laughter followed until we were all guffawing at the near panicked state we’d all been in moment earlier.
Fortunately, the rest of the flight was largely uneventful. We landed in Virginia and headed straight to Quantico where we were reunited with Christopher. After a leisurely family day, we climbed into the bleachers on day two to beam with pride as Christopher and his fellow candidates were honored for their achievements.
My family is unbelievably proud of him and the commitment he has made to serve this country. Following his graduation from college next spring, he will be commissioned as a Second Lieutenant and begin serving his minimum four years of active duty.
Even with the harrowing journey to get there and back, I can’t imagine a better way to have spent my 4th of July weekend. It’s an honor to know, love, and be related to someone with such true courage to face the unknown.
I hope everyone else enjoyed their holiday weekend!